Mar 24, 2015 - Food Sovereignty is Tribal Sovereignty, by Brit Reed


Although many of us have heard a portion of the story of our disconnection to our lands and our foods, we feel the effects of that disconnection everyday in our lives, our communities, and in our bodies.  Today many tribes live on lands away from their traditional territories or live on reservations vastly reduced in size to the tribes’ original territories. Furthermore, many tribal and urban native communities are virtual food deserts and ravaged by diabetes, hypertension, obesity, depression, etc. Continued disconnection form our foods means increasing disconnection not only from our lands, but also our spiritual ways, languages, and communities.

In her TedxRainer talk, Valerie Segrest states, “Traditional foods are the pillar of our culture and they feed much more than our physical bodies; they feed our spirits. They are the living link with the land and with our legacy helping us to always remember who we are and where we come from.” Prior to 1491, tribal nations were hunters, fishers, gatherers, and agriculturalists. According to Winona LaDuke, during pre-contact times, native peoples had access to a larger variety of foods. In fact, she states that there were over 8.000 varieties of corn present in the Americas alone. Segrest also remarked that the traditional Coast Salish diet consisted of 300 different foods a year – this is in stark contrast to the westernized diet tribal people have access to today, that consists of 12 to 20 different foods a year.  Acquisition, processing, and cooking of the food often required much physical labor. In her book, Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast, Michelene E. Pesantubbee discusses how in some tribal nations, such as the Choctaw, where agriculture was a major source of food production, women were responsible for tending the fields and growing the food. As such, they held power over the distribution of food within their communities and to outsiders – such as foreign international nations. Choctaw women also held major roles in ceremony and governance due to their ownership over the food grown in the fields. Acquiring food in a traditional manner gave native peoples deep understanding and connection to the land, our spiritual ways, our communities, and our languages.

Our collective disconnection from the land and our food sources was first put into hyper-drive in the 1830s with Andrew Jackson’s administration and the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and Indian Appropriation Act of 1851. These Acts forced Native peoples off their land and into Indian Territory; and opened more land to non-Indian people. In some cases tribes, such as the Choctaw, Cherokee, Muskogee, and Chickasaws who were swamp and woodland peoples, had to learn how to survive in the plains – an entirely foreign environment. During the early reservation years, native people would leave their reservations in order to access traditional foods such as bison, deer, elk, etc. For the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apaches they continued to go off reservation to hunt until 1870 when bison were no longer available due to the U.S. army sanctioned slaughter of bison herds. The mass killing of bison was one of many aggressive methods the U.S. military and Indian Agents utilized to contain Indians within reservation boundaries. As a result of being moved onto reservations and being severed from traditional food sources, tribes became increasingly dependent on U.S. supplies to survive.

By the 1940s, the majority of tribal lands had been lost through federal policies, including the General Allotment Act of 1887 and obesity, hypertension, and other chronic diseases began reaching epidemic levels within native communities. Although native people had been eating an industrial westernized diet consisting primarily of white flour, sugar, salt, and lard since we were initially forced on reservations, as of 1940, the level of physical activity necessary to live ones life was drastically reduced as access to modern technology and convenience entered tribal communities across the United States. No longer were people chopping wood, hauling water, walking long distances or ridding in a horse and buggy, but were instead utilizing indoor heating and plumbing and automobiles. It is this introduction of modernity that was the catalyst for the epidemic of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, etc. plaguing our communities.

Today we are being further disconnected from food, in general, by way of the ever-quickening pace of our lifestyles and increased corporate control over our foods. As our lives get busier and busier, the time we spend preparing our foods is being drastically reduced. According to Paul Robert, author of the book The End of Food, “The average household can devote to cooking – around thirty minutes a day, down from an hour in 1970… by 2030, the ideal cooking time is forecast to be between five and fifteen minutes.… In many households, family members are so overwhelmed by school, work, and conflicting activity schedules that they increasingly eat separate and often different meals.”  Likewise, billions of office workers are now routinely eating lunch at their desks rather than eating with others.  With the quickening of lifestyle and reduction of cooking time, food industry analyst say that less than half of home meals feature even one freshly made, or made from scratch, item. Furthermore people are eating more and more processed foods that contain ingredients that have historically been detrimental to the indigenous diet, such as white flour, sugar, salt, and fat. Regardless of the possible short and long-term health effects, processed foods also contain a number of additives and chemicals; of which, both the food industry and Food and Drug Administration have taken the stance, ‘innocent until proven guilty.’  Unfortunately the incorporation of additives also extends to the meat industry; who, among other things, inject animals with growth hormones and antibiotics altering their biological chemistry to grow at disproportional and unhealthy rates.  It is feared that the continual ingestion of hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms could also alter the biological chemistry of human populations as well.

Sadly, most reservations toady are virtual food deserts. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert on their website as, “…Urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options…. A one-mile marker may not be appropriate to use in rural areas where the population is more sparsely distributed and where vehicle ownership is high. To further refine the number of people affected by a 10-mile maker is used to consider food access in rural areas.” For many reservations, geographic isolation complicates access to food.

In a 2007 study, Blakey Brown, Curtis Noonan, and Mark Nord, observed, “Long distances to adequately stocked stores and lack of public transportation often mean that reservation residents have poor access to sources of high-quality food.” Additionally, a 2011 study done by Megan O’Connel, et all, found that in Washington state, seventeen reservations were found to not have a supermarket on their reservation; however, most supermarkets were around ten miles away from tribal headquarters. In other areas of the United States, people living on reservations may have to travel even further to reach grocery stores or supermarkets. For example, tribal members living on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana must travel an average of 30 miles to access full-service grocery stores and supermarkets.

However, lack of public transportation between the reservation and the nearest city limit the ability for tribal members to acquire healthier foods. O’Connel, et all, study also found that there were far more convenience stores on and near reservations; grocery stores, while less prevalent than convenience stores, were found to be more prevalent than supermarkets on or near reservations.

Sharon Venne states that before contact with European nations, tribal nations throughout the Americas had all inherent authority within their respective territories; they had their governments, legal systems, education system, health care, their own system of taking care of their people, and the ability to make treaties or agreements with other nations.  Tribal nations also managed their available resource systems and provided healthy food to their citizens. Venne goes on to say, “We had everything; we had the inherent authority to do that. This is what it was like the day before [Europeans] arrived, the day after they arrived we still had that.”

Traditional laws pertaining to our relationship to the plants, animals, and fish we utilized for food, as well as what we would now call food sovereignty and food security, lay within the stories of our tribal nations that have been passed down from generation to generation in one form or another. Segrest states that at the core of tribal sovereignty is food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is defined as the right of a community to define its own diet and therefore shape its own food system. In 1855 when the Muckleshoot were negotiating a treaty between their nation and the United States, Segrest’s ancestor was the first to talk and the first issue discussed was access to traditional foods. In the creation of many treaties, tribal leaders of the time ensured that access to foods were in those documents. However, in the case of treaties that do not mention food or access to food, tribal nations are still entitled to access to their traditional foods due to their inherent sovereignty that has existed since before European nations stepped foot in the Americas.

Today, there continues to be a great deal of focus concerning tribal economic development; however, given the epidemic levels of chronic diseases present in our communities, its is a part of our fundamental inherent sovereignty and responsibility to ensure that our communities not only have access to a variety of good and healthy food, but that we are able to define our diets and shape our own food systems.  LaDuke asserts, “When you’re looking at this diabetes epidemic, I could spend my time lobbying for more dialysis clinics – trying to get the largest one in North America … – or I could do this; this is our plan. Plus it helps us to become better people.” Ensuring food security and exercising food sovereignty within tribal communities will  ensure there is food for the present and future generations to come.  Furthermore, acquiring, processing and consuming our traditional foods revitalizes our connection with our languages, lands, cultures, communities, spiritual ways, and ourselves.  Food sovereignty and security is a right, responsibility, and a part of Tribal Sovereignty that should be seriously considered and vigorously enacted.

For more information regarding existing tribal food sovereignty programs, check out the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, Growing our Groceries on the Tulalip Reservation, White Earth Land Recovery Project, Cherokee Nation Seed bank, and the Nisqually Gardening Program.  To join in the conversation regarding traditional foods, food sovereignty, and food security, check out the Food Sovereignty is Tribal Sovereignty facebook group:

Brit Reed (Choctaw) is currently pursing a Masters of Public Administration degree with a concentration in Tribal Governance through The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.

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